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Monday, November 5, 2007

The Fun Houses (originally published 7/99)

It is perhaps a mark of our resilience that people are generally able to find humor even in that which frightens us. Each Halloween, for example, as you stand in a long line of people waiting to pay for the privilege of being scared at a "haunted house," you will note that the sounds coming from inside consist of roughly equal portions of screams and laughter.

The haunted house movies I've recommended to you over the last couple of weeks all focus on the grimly horrific aspects of such ghostly manifestations, as does this summer's "The Haunting." There is, however, an equally rich tradition of movies celebrating the fun of spook houses. If you prefer your creepy movies leavened with humor, look for these haunted house comedies on home video.

"The Ghost Goes West" (1936). The overwhelming majority of haunted house comedies involve a house that isn't haunted at all. There's usually someone who wants to create the impression that the house is haunted in order to profit from it somehow. This Alexander Korda production directed by Rene Clair is an exception. Robert Donat plays an honest to goodness ghost who haunts a Scottish castle. When an American millionaire buys the castle and has it transported to his Florida estate, the ghost dutifully follows. Taking up his old habits in this new location, the ghost succeeds in creating comic complications for his ancestor, also played by Donat, who serves as the castle's caretaker.

"The Ghost Breakers" (1940). In 1939, Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard had scored a big box office hit with "The Cat and the Canary," which put a comic spin on the familiar "old, dark house" thriller. Although not really a ghost story, it was set in a forbidding old mansion, complete with sliding panels and secret passageways. Seeking to bring the same humorous touch to an actual haunted house story, Hope and Goddard next teamed up in "The Ghost Breakers," in which Goddard plays a young woman who has inherited a haunted castle in the West Indies near Cuba. Hope is a radio crime reporter, loosely based on Walter Winchell, with whom she becomes romantically involved. Together they face the challenge of claiming her creepy inheritance.

"Hold That Ghost" (1941). Some of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's funniest scenes involved the childlike Costello being scared witless by something that the brusque, impatient Abbott never sees. Costello was a virtuoso at comic fright scenes. Most actors would settle for a wide-eyed flinch and a yelp of fear, but Costello could sustain a fright take for minutes at a time. First, his breathing would seize up, replaced by pathetic little snorts. Then, he'd try to call for help, only to discover that his voice had deserted him. Finally, his motor skills would utterly collapse, leaving him unable even to whistle for help. In this film, the boys inherit a haunted tavern. Their attempt to take possession of the creepy property gives rise to a whole symphony of Costello fright takes.

"Spooks Run Wild" (1941). The "East Side Kids," later known as the "Bowery Boys," encountered a number of haunted houses during the course of their dozens of films together, but the best of the lot is this entertaining romp. The proprietor of the spook house invaded by the boys is none other than Bela Lugosi, looking for all the world like he did in "Dracula" (1931). He's not actually supposed to be a vampire in this one, but we're clearly supposed to make the connection.

"The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" (1966). After leaving his role as the fidgety, high-strung Deputy Barney Fife on television's "Andy Griffith Show," Don Knotts parlayed variations on that characterization into a movie career. Here he portrays a milquetoast who tries to spend a night in a haunted house in order to prove himself worthy of being a newspaper reporter.

Like the "East Side Kids," most long running comedy series seem to eventually get around to doing some sort of variation on the haunted house idea. Even Blondie and Francis the Talking Mule did haunted house movies. If "The Haunting" serves as a reminder that we never tire of being frightened at the movies, the whole history of popular entertainment stands as a testimony to the fact that we also never tire of laughing at our fears.

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